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Leisure • Art/Architecture

The Secret Toll of Our Ugly World

It can take until we’re a bit down or have to go travelling for us to be reminded of a truth that we generally manage to keep well out of our minds in the name of sanity and balance: the modern world is very, very ugly.

Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash

Of course, not all bits. There are some charming – largely historical – sections around which to wander: the old quarter of Brussels and Paris, the centre of Madrid, the core of Manhattan, some districts in San Francisco and Tokyo. And let’s not forget that the world is far safer, more hygienic and better connected than it’s ever been before, not to mention immensely richer (about 15 times richer than it was at the start of the 20th century and a 177 times richer than at the start of the 19th).

But none of this blows away the claim under consideration. We’ve built an unholy muddle. The suburbs of almost every large conurbation are a scrambled wreck put up without the slightest concern for harmony or human scale: disarrayed flyovers, vast stained overpasses, gargantuan forbidding towers dotted here and there like they’d been tipped out of a giant’s knapsack, forms that are alternately garish and blinding, intimidating or ominous. It’s a world built entirely without love, a world we should be unendingly apologetic of bringing any child into.

We navigate it of course. We look around while making a huge effort not to see anything. To be a modern human is to have honed a particular kind of blindness in the name of hope and vitality.

We zero in on the few millimetres of illuminated glass in our hands and don’t open our eyes wide again until we’re at home, at which point we become obsessive about a chair, a lamp or a rug, as a form of compensation for the miles upon miles of nonsense, rubble, tumult and aesthetic desert outside. There is an irony in seeing tourists stand in line for hours to look with enormous reverence at a few paintings in a museum while all around them the everyday make up of the world is defiantly devoid of any of the values humanity fetishistically professes to admire in art. 

Not much is to be gained from trying to attribute blame. The answers as to why we got here are both obvious and hopeless: because we’re traumatised furious mammals, because urban planning is in the hands of either no one or of miscreants, because our material means has far outstripped our moral evolution. There’s nothing straightforward to be done.

But there is a glimmer of relief nevertheless. Part of our pain stems from fearing that no one else may have noticed, that no one else cares. The helpful news is that they do passionately – albeit quietly and resignedly. It may feel like an overly private agony; it most definitely isn’t. It’s a pain which we’re collectively just still struggling to find words to express. The love of beauty runs deep in every one of us; its absence quietly breaks all our hearts.

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